Lack of support for young researchers is holding back China’s innovation

6 min read

Sun Yukun, a second-year student at the China Agricultural University and leader of the university’s student Science Trip team, left Beijing for Tibet on July 24 with 15 other members. The Tibet field trip project has been the university Science Trip’s tradition for 14 years. For the past few months, Sun has organized high-intensity physical training and special research seminars to prepare for this annual event. After 40 hours of sitting on a train, members then take local vans to some of the most remote areas in the region.

Sun’s team represents a trend in China’s basic science and tech landscape: by organizing student-led projects, Chinese undergraduate students are spontaneously approaching a career in science and technology amid a tough domestic research environment. Their efforts are gradually paving the way for commercialized research in China, but they still need systematic support to be powerful enough to produce tangible innovations and breakthroughs.

Tibet and quantum computation

“Our science club is for cross-disciplinary field trips and research. It’s about knowing the ecosystem and needs of everything there, including plants, animals, healthcare, cultural heritage, economy, and development. We now have a very diverse portfolio of members, with majors ranging from engineering to nutrition,” Sun told TechNode.

The team’s recent research projects include investigating corporate and government influences in ethnic groups’ agricultural endeavors, home appliances made by rare materials, e-commerce, plateau agriculture, economic crops’ management in valley areas, and wild animals’ health and protection in tourism zones.

A steel-structure greenhouse at Bainang county in Shigatse, Tibet. Sun and her team visited the site during this year’s trip before entering more lesser-known areas. (Image Credit: Sun Yukun)

Sun and her research group may not have realized that what they are doing is now part of the foundation of China’s startup and strategic tech landscape.

According to China’s National Scientific and Technical Achievements Database (NSTAD), Sun and her team’s work may provide the latest field findings to sectors including energy efficiency, ecosystem repair technology, agriculture, and new materials. Ethnographic material Sun and her team collect from residents could contribute to disciplines like anthropology, linguistics, art, and religious studies.

Besides Sun, students in STEM subjects have their own approaches. “The field of pure mathematics has hundreds of years of genius work already done by giants, and it’s highly abstract – it’s almost impossible for an undergraduate student to innovate,” Liu Renyu, a final-year mathematics student from Wuhan University, told TechNode. By the time of our interview, Liu had received a PhD offer from the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) quantum computation project.

Liu’s first bite of research-like practice is similar to self-taught literature review training: “I read articles and books and digest them. I then put them down as notes, and I submitted the notes to a professor I know every two weeks.” Since his second semester of his third undergraduate year, Liu has written 30 such notes. To produce 1 piece, Liu had to consult an average of nine scholarly resources.

The National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) in the United States specializes in research for undergraduate students outside their own institutions’ related opportunities. Here in China, no equivalent projects can be found. As a spontaneous solution, Liu and his fellows have to teach themselves. Their self-learning process is gradually building up a foundation for deep future research.

“I don’t use exactly what I previously learned as I’m now working on physical oceanography, but I did computational physics for my bachelor’s in China. The capability to think and build up physical models does not differ much between subjects,” said Zhang Tianyi, who just successfully defended his dissertation in the United States.

“Take the Regional Ocean Modelling System which is adopted by the physical oceanography community including NASA’s Jet Pulposion Lab (JPL) —one of NASA’s most famous and advanced labs—for example, the foundation for the study and application of the model lies in the knowledge of basic physical mechanics and information analysis, taught in 101 courses,” he said to us.

China’s basic science awareness and ambition

“Strong basic science research is the foundation of the construction of a world-leading country. We lack significant original research achievements, basic science input, proper research design structure, top talents and teams, reward frameworks, or a business awareness [of science]. The whole society’s support for basic science should be improved,” China’s National Congress’ new policy guidance (in Chinese), released on February 2, 2018, says. The guidance hopes to strengthen the country’s basic science research from all possible perspectives.

Ambitious as the policy may seem, a practical problem at the moment is a stable funding and the proper use of it.

“Private companies and ventures are not willing to do [basic research]. It takes too long to see any impact. It has to be funded by the government,” Dr. Lawrence Lau, the Ralph and Claire Landau Professor of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a meeting in May.

According to Dr. Lau, in terms of basic research expenditure as a share of total R&D expenditure, US stands on top with the figure of over 10%, whereas China’s is below 5%.

Take Sun’s university as an example, in 2015, China Agricultural University received RMB 1 billion for science research (in Chinese), ranking 29th among surveyed universities. The amount is not small. But spare funding for students’ projects like Sun’s research in Tibet doesn’t amount to much, as major financing first goes to state-backed labs and national agricultural projects. Sun told TechNode that her team funds itself with members’ RMB 1,500 annual donations while hiking equipment and medical support is provided by commercial parties.

Zhang says that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States provided funding to undergraduate students who wished to observe ocean waves and ripples with drones. Such support, according to Zhang, is rare in China.

Apart from limited overall funding, what is also challenging for China’s higher education and research institutions is the uneven allocation of the money. The 2015 funding survey also shows the dominant position of Tsinghua University, which absorbed RMB 4.4 billion and was almost RMB 400 million ahead of the 2nd institution, Zhejiang University. Starting with the 5th institution, Peking University, all other funding was below RMB 2.5 billion.

The unevenness increased in 2016 when Tsinghua received over RMB 5 billion, and the second-ranking Peking University got RMB 2.7 billion. This situation is causing difficulty for non-top tier institutions to receive material support, let alone undergraduate students’ own projects. Additionally, the lack of human assets such as researchers and scientists who can lead science projects and guide young talents like Sun and Liu is also a problem China is facing.

In March, Premier Li Keqiang stressed Beijing’s “fast-tracking of bringing in overseas talent”. Meanwhile, the country is reportedly mining Silicon Valley for tech talents. With regards to basic science, China knows money cannot buy research the way it can buy buildings.

For young talents like Sun and Liu, the country’s shortage of human assets means that students can hardly expect close and consistent guidance from senior professionals to help them build a career in science.

A talent recruitment advertisement appeared on the official site of top science publication Science’s official journal webpage accessed on August 7th. 

Tech innovation and the power of young talents

The tech industry, meanwhile, is competing to grab projects with pioneering technologies. And leading global players have tasted the benefits basic research can bring. WI Harper, a leading global venture capital (VC) investment entity, revealed its latest portfolio projects including histopathology research and neural health application in May.

A VC participant of 2018 WI Harper’s shareholder meeting who wished to remain anonymous said he was very interested in Dr. Lou-Chuang Lee, a former researcher at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and Dr. Alfred Wong, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA’s fusion physics empowered new energy concept.

“Uniqueness – this is what attracts me. No one can copy it. If you put your money in any tangible innovations in the future, you get the regional government’s endorsement. And meanwhile, you get a golden egg,” he says.

On June 30, computer instruction set architecture (ISA) RISC-V’s official tech promotion foundation RISC-V Foundation had its only 2018 conference for Mainland China at Fudan University, Shanghai. Exclusive for professionals and high-level investors, the foundation’s conference showed some of the latest ISA technologies including the world’s smallest drone developed by European scientists.

Not long after the conference, RISC-V technology received official government support. The Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Information released a government notice to formally announce the support of RISC-V related integrated circuit and digital information manufacturing parties.

The commercial cross-border VC WI Harper and tech promotion community RISC-V Foundation, meanwhile, are giving opportunities back to young talents, to sustain the supply of innovation. Dr. Lee said the majority of staff in the projects are from science labs, including a few students in the early stages of scientific research.

Organizers of the RISC-V event provided financial support to students who were interested in ISA topics. The event also featured undergraduate student Wan Ruigang who started designing CPU in high school to give a speech at the conference which was dominated by famous researchers.

Without a stable and sufficient supply of young scientists, China’s tech scene will remain a follower of global trends or rely on scientists who complete science training abroad. A spontaneous scientific effort may apply to students and geniuses, but not the education system.

Premier Li Keqiang said in June: “An unstable undergraduate education foundation in an education system has the damaging power to shake the earth and mountain (本科不牢,地动山摇).” But, what could be practically done still remains uncertain.